As with nearly anything else in life most of us are limited to a certain budget when it comes to buying things, so the actual question should be What is the best motorcycle helmet for my budget? and Are expensive helmets worth their price?. In this article we are looking to cover different materials motorcycle helmets are made of, how they relate to their safety ratings and price as well as what features you may expect a modern helmet to have.
Motorbike helmets are constructed from a thin, hard outer shell made from plastics, fibreglass, carbon fibre or their composite material and a thicker, soft inner EPS foam shell for impact absorption.
Plastic motorcycle helmets are the cheapest, heaviest and the least safe of all and therefore some are not compliant with the minimal safety requirements to use in the UK making them illegal to wear while riding (read more about UK Motorcycle Helmet Law). Even their price point does not excuse for wearing them as certified quality composite helmets can be purchased from about £50.
Composite motorcycle helmets are built using a mixture of different materials, usually fibreglass or carbon fibre mixed with a resin like polyester or epoxy. The benefit of this process is to keep costs down while maintaining the benefits of the materials involved.
Fibreglass shell motorcycle helmets are light and offer great impact absorption.
Carbon/Kevlar helmets are the most expensive and achieve the highest safety ratings in general. They provide the best protection in high-speed crashes and worn during motorcycle races.
Even though carbon fibre may seem to be the clear winner here, the better question is Do I really need a carbon fibre helmet? considering their starting price is around £400. While some plastic helmets score high in tests, their characteristics require to use more materials to achieve a similar impact resistance as composite helmets while making them heavier and not much cheaper I can’t think of a single reason to buy them. Composite helmets are on par with fibreglass helmets in safety, quality, price and weight and they are really more than good enough for everyone’s daily usage.
DOT and SNELL certifications are most common in the US (DOT stands for Department of Transportation).
While ECE (Economic Commission for Europe) R 22.05 is a European standard it is the most commonly accepted safety certification worldwide not just by the number of countries, but racing organizations as well. ECE certification involves more rigorous testing than DOT and SNELL combined.
ECE certified helmets can range in price from £50 to over £800 pounds, so they can’t be the same after all, can they? SHARP is a UK-specific motorcycle helmet rating system introduced to provide buyers with an informed choice on more factors than the oversimplified outcome of pass or fail ECE or DOT test. A common argument against SHARP ratings is not being realistic, because helmets undergo a variety of controlled, laboratory-like impact tests from each side of the helmet hit by pointy and blunt forces then the results are analysed and rated on a 5 star scale. It is worth checking out SHARP Helmet Tests before investing in a new helmet for comparison as a helmet scoring 2 star in very unlikely to provide better protection than a 4 or 5 star rated one in real life accidents.
Full face helmets unsurprisingly have the highest structural integrity, but modular helmets come close. Certified modular helmets are still not legal or meant to be ridden while open, because they were tested closed! Open face helmets clearly won’t help much if you fly face first onto a concrete curb, but that’s your choice if you prefer design over common sense. They also provide much less wind (and bug) protection, hence no riders use them apart from Italian city scootabouts.
D-ring straps need to be tightened every time whereas quick-release straps provide the same tightness and comfort every time after their initial adjustment. Quick release clips (unlike d-rings) can be operated with gloves on. Even though quick release straps may be more convenient for everyday use, d-ring straps are considered safer and required to have by some circuits for track day use.
Modern motorcycle helmets can have a variety of features integrated from a sunshade to cameras, bluetooth headset or even HUD (head-up display). What features You need in a helmet comes down to what You use your motorcycle for. For track days all you need is a quality full face helmet, but for delivering pizzas you are probably better off with a modular helmet with bluetooth connectivity.
Visors are easily replaceable and while tinted ones may look cooler, they are far less practical than a helmet with an internal sunshade. The dropdown internal sun visor can be operated with a slider found on the top or side of the helmet while riding. Pinlock anti-fog visor inserts also worth mentioning while talking about practicality.
Very few helmets come with integrated bluetooth headset, while some are intercom-ready, meaning there are recesses for speakers, microphone and even the intercom-unit as well. Motorcycle bluetooth headsets and intercoms are designed to fit a wide variety of helmets, not just the ones built to suit them.
Motorcycle HUDs are rare and even more rarely integrated directly into the helmet itself. NUVIZ was a promising solution to satisfy a modern rider’s needs with taking videos, photos, accessing music, phone contacts and projecting satnav instruction, speed and other useful live information in a head-up display while riding... until October 2019 when these products suddenly stopped functioning due to expired licenses.
It is still quite a new, uncommon feature that some start-up companies are promising to deliver, but failing to break ground due to the really high costs and the questionable necessity for such an aid. They aim to provide a full rear and blind-spot view in real time.
Try before you buy: the correct size doesn’t automatically mean a comfortable fit. The helmet should be tight enough for you not to be able to twist your head sideways inside while someone else is holding onto it, but not too tight to give you headaches. Different makes will fit head shapes differently, so for some customers Shoei or HJC helmets will always fit better than Arai or vice-versa hence sticking to brand. Some manufacturers, like Scorpion integrate a manual air-pump in some models to inflate an air pillow to provide a customisable fit. Sizing between different models can differ even with the same manufacturer.
Always buy a brand new, certified full face or modular helmet made of quality polycarbonate, fibreglass or carbon fibre suitable to your budget from a known retailer. Replace your helmet after an accident, drop or after 5 years as the shell materials compress and won’t provide the same protection. Cut the straps off when throwing away.